Speaking of King, here’s what he says in his book “On Writing”:
“Description begins with visualization of what it is you want the reader to experience. It ends with your translating what you see in your mind into words on the page. It is far from easy. We’ve all heard someone say, ‘Man, it was so great (or horrible/ strange /funny)…I just can’t describe it!’ If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able to describe it, and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition. If you can do this well, you will be paid for your labors. If you can’t, you’re going to collect a lot of rejection slips.”
“Prickle with recognition.” Isn’t that a great way to put it?
“Description is a learned skill, one of the reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It is not a question of how-to, you see; it is also a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can only learn by doing. “
I’ll leave you with one final fashion icon as metaphor. If you try hard, you can get better at this. If she could go from this:
So can you.
By P.J. Parrish
Our critique today is titled “The Last Rose of Summer.” My comments, in yellow, follow.
The naked trees snaked upward, black capillaries against a bleached, predawn sky. The ground beneath his feet was a mire of dead leaves and copper-colored mud. A cold December wind wafted through the trees, loosening raindrops from the needles of the tall pines.
Andrew stumbled as his boot sank into a puddle, the suede immediately blanketed by a thin membrane of algae. Cursing softly, he stepped free and trudged on, grabbing the thin arms of the small trees as he scaled the slippery slope. He could no longer see the orange vest of the hunter ahead and he called for him to slow down. Pausing at the crest of the hill, Andrew rested against a fallen tree, pulling up the fleece collar of his cocoa-brown jacket. He waited for the last man of his trio to puff his way up the muddy incline.
Despite the freezing temperature, Junior Resnick’s porkish face was flushed and beaded with sweat. His brown jacket, spotted with mud, looked like a sleeping bag tied around his thick belly. “Man,” Junior said, breathless, “I thought he said it was jus’ a ways out here.” He wiped his nose with this forearm. “This is fuckin’ crazy, Andy, plum fuckin’ crazy.”
Andrew allowed himself a small smile. He enjoyed seeing Junior suffer. Wiping the mud from his trousers with a gloved hand, he turned away and started down the hill. “We’ve come this far, we keep going,” he said.
At the bottom of the ravine, he stopped on the banks of a rippling creek. The sun chose that moment to break through the heavy gray clouds, shooting eerie streaks of light into the morning mist. Andrew heard Junior’s footsteps coming up behind him and motioned for him to stop. A mockingbird’s haunting call sent creatures scampering from the brush as the wind whistled softly through the trees. The swirling mist floated over the damp ground, creeping over Louis’s shoes. He felt a stir of excitement. It was a fitting day to find a body.
Andrew stumbled as his boot sank into a puddle, the suede immediately blanketed by a thin membrane of algae. The SUEDE was blanketed? Do we care what the boot is made of? While we’re at it, do we care about algae? Get on with it! Cursing softly, he stepped free and trudged on, grabbing the thin arms of the small trees What’s wrong with “branches”? as he scaled the slippery slope. We know its slippery; it has algae on it. He could no longer see the orange vest of the hunter ahead and he called for him to slow down. Pausing at the crest of the hill, Andrew rested against a fallen tree, pulling up the fleece collar of his cocoa-brown jacket. He waited for the last man of his trio to puff his way up the muddy we KNOW it’s muddy! incline.
Despite the freezing temperature, you already said it was cold Junior Resnick’s porkish this is a loaded word. Tone it down to chubby?face was flushed and beaded with sweat. His brown jacket, spotted with mud, more mud? looked like a sleeping bag tied around his thick belly. Again, you already told us he’s fat. “Man,” Junior said, breathless, You already told us he’s breathing hard. “I thought he said it was jus’ a ways out here.” I get the feeling we are in the South somewhere. Dropping G’s to convey geographic dialect isn’t a good idea because it is hard to read over the course of a book and it is staring to establish a stereotype of Southern cops. He wiped his nose with this forearm. “This is fuckin’ crazy, Andy, plum fuckin’ crazy.” I think F word should be used VERY sparingly, as an accent, not as common venacular. It loses its impact when tossed out like this.
Andrew allowed himself a small smile. He enjoyed seeing Junior suffer. If Andrew is our hero, why make him so unlikeable so early?Wiping the mud argh…more mud from his trousers with a gloved hand, he turned away and started down the hill. “We’ve come this far, need new graph here. we keep going,” he said. New graph here too. At the bottom of the ravine, he stopped on the banks of a rippling creek. The sun chose that moment The sun is inanimate. It can’t “choose” to do anything. to break through the heavy gray clouds, shooting eerie streaks of light into the morning mist. Louis heard Junior
Okay, I know. I am being a little hard on this contributor. But I have a right to be because I wrote this way back in 1998. It got published under a new title — DARK OF THE MOON. The hero’s name changed from Andrew to Louis Kincaid. It was the book that launched the series that we are still writing today.
Sorry for not fessing up from the get-go but I just wanted to make a point. I think the critiques we do here are a damn good deal. We all seem to learn something from the give-and-take of the comments. And although it’s useful to read about the craft of writing, it can be really powerful to get feedback and see “before” and “after” writing samples. I got the idea — and courage — to show you this from Stephen King. I’ve been re-reading “On Writing” this week and in the last chapter he tears apart one of his own stories, showing us his raw first draft and the finished chapter. It’s an eye-opener.
I also wanted to share this because we recently got the rights back to our first book and are self-publishing it as an eBook. But in the process of getting it ready, Kelly and I took a hard look and decided that we could make it better. Don’t get me wrong; we’re proud of the book. But it was a freshman effort and, contrary to F. Scott Fitzgerald, there ARE second acts — if not in life than in the life of books. So rather than putting the book out there as it was originally published, we are going through it and changing some things.
Like what? Well, we’re pruning some of the “writer-ly” stuff because in the last twelve years we’ve learned that less is usually more. Here’s a good quote from “On Writing:”
“If you want to be a successful writer you must be able to describe [it], and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition…Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Over description buried him or her in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium.”
We’ve also rid our book of bad dialect and gratuitous obscenities. We tweaked the secondary characters so we are not playing directly into the Southern stereotype. Yes, there are truths to be told about race in the South but it is more effective, we think now, to approach it at a thoughtful angle rather than dead-on with a hammer. And because we now know our protagonist better after living with him for twelve books, we are setting up his motivations more thoughtfully.
This has been extremely humbling, this process. It is also gratifying because we can see our trajectory as authors, see how much we have learned. But what does this have to do with me, you might be asking? Well, here’s some things you might want to take away from my first-page self-critique here:
1. Trust in the rewriting process. This is where your book is made. Get that first draft written, set it aside for at least a couple weeks then go back and look at it with a cold eye. If it looks, as Stephen King puts it, “like an alien relic bought at a junk shop where you can’t remember shopping,” you’re ready to rewrite. You’ll find glaring plot holes, thin character motivation, and lots of cheese. Embrace this process! “The Last Rose of Summer” was rewritten ten times before it found a publisher and now we’re rewriting it again. Your first draft come from your heart. Your second, third, fourth, tenth…those all come from the head.
2. Trust yourself to clean up your messes and misses. The original first chapter of “Dark of the Moon” is about five pages. In our latest rewrite we have cut it to three. Nothing important was sacrificed. But we really upped the pacing in the crucial opening chapters. Stephen King offers this formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%.
3. Trust that you will find your “style.” It’s what makes you unique as a writer, your special voice and way of looking at the world through your fiction that no one else has. If you read “Dark of Moon” you will hear P.J. Parrish’s voice but it wasn’t clear and confident. Now, our tone has darkened, our writing style has become leaner, and we’ve found our essential themes. It’s all epitomized in the two titles: Our working title, “The Last Rose of Summer” conveys the end of something but it sounds fuzzy, flowery and better suited to a romance. “Dark of the Moon,” taken from a Langston Hughes poem, hit just the right note.
4. Trust in your ability to learn. Yes, talent is important but so is craft. And craft can be learned. If you are a serious writer, you must be willing to constantly challenge yourself and never be content with what is easy and quick. You can hone your craft and you can get better. And yes, it might take a long time.
I am an old dog. I am still learning new tricks.
Postscript: I decided to include the “new” WIP opening so you can see our “before” and “after.” We used our first two chapters in a recent SleuthFest rewriting workshop we taught and if anyone would like to have a copy of the handout, I’d be glad to mail it to you. Email me at email@example.com. Please put Parrish Handout in the subject line.
- Pick the exact right moment in time to start telling your story. Too soon and you end up with pages of throat-clearing. Too late and you might miss the story’s moment of catalytic power. You have to time your entry into your story just right or, like those astronauts in Apollo 13, you’ll skip off the atmosphere and bounce into nothingness.
- Persevere through the second act. Making it through what I call “the muddy middle” is the hardest part of writing a solid book. You have to use all the tricks of the trade to keep the story moving forward and maintain suspense.
- Earn your climax (ahem) and know when it’s time to leave. Deliver a resolution that is logical, fair and emotionally satisfying. But resist the temptation to tie everything up too neatly.
But let’s go back to beginnings. What makes a great opening for a book?
“[A good opening] is not just the reader’s way in, it’s the writer’s way in also, and you’ve got to find a doorway that fits us both. I think that’s why my books tend to begin as first sentences — I’ll write that opening sentence first, and when I get it right I’ll start to think I really have something.”
King is talking about opening lines in context of his new book, Doctor Sleep. (Click here for the whole article). Doctor Sleep is the sequel to The Shining, picking up with now adult Danny. Here is the opening King came up with:
“On the second day of December, in a year when a Georgia peanut farmer was doing business in the White House, one of Colorado’s great resort hotels burned to the ground.”
“She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”
“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
“It was such a beautiful night; the bright moonlight illuminated the sky, the thick clouds floated leisurely by just above the silhouette of tall, majestic trees, and I was viewing it all from the front row seat of the bullet hole in my car trunk.”
Here’s the winner in my favorite category, Vile Puns:
“What the Highway Department’s chief IT guy for the new computerized roadway hated most was listening to the ‘smart’ components complain about being mixed with asphalt instead of silicon and made into speed bumps instead of graceful vases, like the one today from chip J176: “I coulda had glass; I coulda been a container; I coulda been some bottle, instead of a bump, which is what I am.”
She strutted into my office wearing a dress that clung to her like Saran Wrap to a sloppily butchered pork knuckle, bone and sinew jutting and lurching asymmetrically beneath its folds, the tightness exaggerating the granularity of the suet and causing what little palatable meat there was to sweat, its transparency the thief of imagination.